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The Mule As A Beast Of Burden

At the conclusion of the War with Mexico in 1848, the bell tolled for the end of dominant Spanish influence in the American West. Gradually the glamour of the conquistadores was dissipated by the new Anglo-Saxon settlers from the East.

To these strangers, the carreta, although useful for hauling produce to and from local markets, failed when called upon to satisfy the requirements of heavier commerce. By and large commercial operators moved their goods from place to place by pack train.

Although horses, llamas, burros, dogs and even camels served as pack animals in the New World; the outstanding favorite was the mule. During the period of Spanish influence in the Southwest, the Mexican mule was used, but later this breed was largely replaced by the American variety, most of which seemed to come from Missouri. Though a mule's disposition was uncertain, he was sure-footed, tough and, next to his cousin the "mountain canary," or burro, was best equipped to exist on scant desert forage.

Choosing a mule was a procedure something like the one described in the old Etruscan proverb about selecting a wife: "Close your eyes and put your trust in God." But there were rules of thumb - the mule should be sturdy-legged, sure-footed, muscular and bright-eyed. It should have sharp teeth, a swishy tail and sound skin; in short, it should be tough, strong, healthy and spirited. Many a muleteer learned to his dismay, and relatively temporary discomfort, that these very same qualities could also make the beast a formidable adversary. It was better, mule drivers generally agreed, if a sort of rapport could be established between man and animal. An American mountaineer once wrote that to do this one had to "live on the intimate terms of brother-explorer with your mule" and be thoughtful of his welfare. This meant feed the animal well, keep it properly shod, prevent galling and stay away from behind him.

The success of the mule as a beast of burden depended as much on the skill of the arriero, or muleteer, as it did on the animal himself. Mexicans made better muleteers. They understood their beast and he understood them. And Mexicans knew the art of packing and unpacking. One British observer said they were the best muleteers in the world.

In loading a mule the first step was to blindfold the animal. Like belling the cat, this was the major part of the battle. Afterward, a broad, thick pad across the animal's back served as a cushion for a "saw-buck" or "cross-buck" saddle. Some packers preferred an aparajo, which was two rectangular leather bags stuffed with straw and lashed together. This arrangement, similar to outsized saddlebags, was contoured to fit the mule's back. After being properly placed and cinched, the load could be lashed on top of either the "saw-buck" or aparajo. A breeching or crupper and a breast strap prevented longitudinal movement.

Loads were carefully balanced and articles of heaviest weight were placed nearest the animal's side while the lighter items rode on top. As protection a tarpaulin was sometimes wrapped around the finished load and held in place by a diamond hitch. Thus arranged a mule could carry up to two hundred pounds, although packers were inclined to exaggerate their figures. But, whatever the load it usually included about fifty pounds of fodder.

If loaded properly, the mule generally made no protest, but if he felt that he had been mistreated, he registered resentment in one of several ways. He could lie down in passive resistance, or he could take to his heels, jolting his load across the wild and rocky hillsides.

In the hands of experts such antics were rare, and once packed with blinds removed the mule would take his place in line behind the bell mare. Mules were trained to follow this white or gray mare that was chosen to be their leader; they would graze with her and in general respond to her wishes. The number of mules in a "string" varied from five to seventy-five, but the manner of operation would be generally the same. An average string might be managed by five or six arrieros one of whom would be the cargador, or boss.

In good weather mule-train driving involved arising before dawn, eating breakfast, and then watering and packing the mules. As the first daylight broke, the bell mare would be off down the trail, and one by one the mules would fall in behind her, the pace seldom exceed ing a walk. At midday there would be a break for feeding and watering the train, and nightfall would find the bell mare stopped and the mules circled awaiting their unloading. The men ate their supper in the crisp starlight, their chatter punctuated by the tinkling of the mare's bell as she grazed down the slope.

And in neat stacks, ready for the next morning's reloading, were the trade goods, cloth and clothing from eastern mills, sugar, flour and spices, hides and even, on occasion, pieces of furniture or a sheet iron stove. And atop it all might be a caballero's guitar.

In the late i830's the Swiss adventurer, John Augustus Sutter established the estate he called New Helvetia at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers he had no way of knowing what was to follow. The land grant of eleven square leagues he had obtained from the Mexican authorities at Monterey soon grew into a sort of empire supported by the traders, ranchers and farmers who came that way. But gold? A little of that precious metal had been found far to the south near Los Angeles, but not enough to excite anyone.

In 1847 Sutter, with the sole idea of expanding his operations, ordered James Marshall, one of his employees, to locate a site for a mill and to oversee its construction. Then one day (January 24, 1848) Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of his mill. In spite of Sutter's desperate efforts to keep the discovery secret, the great news eventually leaked out. As the months passed, countless thousands of Argonauts invaded New Helvetia, trampled Sutter's crops, slaughtered his cattle, and left the once proud Swiss embittered, disillusioned and financially ruined.

From the Sacramento and the American, the gold seekers spread out over much of California and with the bustling exploitation came demands for more efficient transportation. The carreta was disappearing with the waning of Spanish influence and was being replaced by the four-wheeled wagon. Clumsy sailing ships soon made way for sleek Yankee clippers on the hazardous trip around South America, and inland the stagecoach offered a new form of passenger service. But with all the change that came out of the building of a new civilization in the West, two of the most ancient methods of transport still survived: the horse and the pack animal.

The persistence of a rancho economy in much of the Southwest made the riding pony virtually a necessity. It was astride a wiry mustang that the rancher made his visits to town and cared for his herds. Pack trains also remained indispensable. The miners who had overrun California's goldbearing hills depended on packers for food and supplies. The mining camp soon became a home away from home, and accordingly, supplies had to be brought in regularly-food and clothing, medicines and tools. But many other less pressing necessities of life made their precarious way up the valleys and along the ledges: mirrors for saloons, pianos and even billiard tables. Gold diggers had huge appetites and the money to satisfy them.

Most goods needed by the miners had to be imported from the "States," with San Francisco the chief port of entry. Crescent City and Eureka were also important ports, while Sacramento, Marysville, Stockton and other river ports that could be reached by steamboat grew into advanced transfer points. It was from these places that the packers would set out for the isolated mining camps in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. And packing became big business, so big in fact that American capitalists soon relieved the Mexican of the work and worry of the pack trains. The hardy arriero, however, was retained to handle the mule trains, the philosophy being that, "if you want a thing done well, hire someone who knows how to do it."

By 1852, two years after California's admission to the union as a state, California had more than sixteen thousand mules valued at more than eight hundred thousand dollars, according to Governor John Bigler's reports on the census of that year, and these were concen trated in the mountain counties. Twenty-five hundred mules, for example, were required to handle the Marysville-Downieville freight; eighteen hundred mules operated out of Shasta and hundreds more trudged the trails of the Mariposa area. The high point in mule population of California came in 1855 when the total swelled to over thirty-one thousand.

Although packing in California retained much of the flavor of Old Mexico, some changes were inevitable under the new management. The Yankee insisted that casualness be replaced by precision and, in turn, an increase in freight volume. Staple food and clothing items were soon augmented by other types of freight and services. In one instance, a printing press weighing nearly 'four hundred pounds was carried into one of the mountain settlements. Before long, enterprising "pack-mule express" men began carrying special delivery mail and transporting gold from mine to city bank, thus assuming the functions of the conventional express companies which soon flourished in California and gained national importance. But until the construction of adequate roads made wagon-freighting and coaching possible between isolated mining communities, the packing business remained king in California.

LIKE A MIGHTY tide the treasure hunters flowed over California. The gold camps were born boisterous and lusty. Less than one man in ten found enough gold to become rich but many were infected with a disease called "gold fever"—an ailment they never outgrew. When the favored few acquired title to all the good claims in what was known as the Mother Lode, the fabulous Comstock was discovered in Nevada. Farther east Pikes Peak gold and Leadville silver made Colorado. Gold mines flourished in Montana during the Civil War, and in 1875 the Black Hills became still another great bonanza.

During all of these rushes many changes occurred, but one thing remained pretty much the same: the pack-mule trains. Operations in the Pacific Northwest followed the pattern set in the Southwest, operating regularly between Humboldt Bay and southern Oregon, between Portland and points in both the upper Willamette and Columbia River valleys, between Fort Langley and the Frazier River diggings and eastward to Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri.

But now pack trains were not the only way to move freight: supplies for the miners could be carried by wagon and even by boat as far as the advanced transshipment points, from where they were forwarded by mule. Freight rates were high and returns to the packers highly satisfactory. Some indication of how satisfactory is clear in a memorial to Congress forwarded by the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1866.

This document stated, among other things, that "no less than six thousand mules have left Walla Walla and the Columbia River loaded with freight for Montana." Moreover, the Montana Post estimated that during the spring and summer of the same year there were between eight thousand and ten thousand pack animals operating in the Montana freight trade.

Besides the commercial operators there were, throughout the West, individuals or small groups who used pack animals as means of transport. The gold seekers themselves, often traveling over trails, were forced to make use of pack mules and horses. Guide books of the period, such as Captain John Mullan's Miners' and Travelers' Guide published in New York in 1865, advised the use of pack mules to reach mining camps in the Pacific Northwest.

The biggest user of pack mules in the West, however, was the United States Army. During the last half of the nineteenth century there were about a hundred army posts scattered throughout the West, many of which were in fairly inaccessible places that could be supplied only by pack animals. Great quantities of freight that eventually arrived at the army posts were first moved by steamer to Missouri River ports such as Atchison, Leavenworth and Nebraska City, from where they continued by wagon freight and then by pack mule.

The keeping of the peace often called for military operations over rough and unmarked land; mules loaded with supplies could go wherever the "yellow legs" went. Some of the largest pack trains of those days were used in General George A. Custer's campaign against the Sioux and in General George Crook's attempts to rid the world of Geronimo and his Apache followers.

Even though the West was fast being tamed and changed, and the tide ebbing where before it had moved in a freshet, the pack animal lived on—at least in the form of the small, tough, long-eared burro. Not as antisocial as the mule, the burro possessed the same ability to exist where little or nothing grew. The coarsest of desert plants would do for a meal, and the burro could sustain himself on the water from a mirage. The few solitary prospectors left, who searched for the "Lost Dutchman" or looked for "color" in the mountain recesses, preferred a burro as their companion. The animal served as confidential adviser and friend as well as beast of burden. Loaded to virtual invisibility with pick, shovel, blanket, rifle, canned goods, flour and other accoutrements of the desert rat, the docile burro was there.

Jay Monaghan, (Editor). The Book of the American West. Simon & Schuster. 1963.


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